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Business of the House

Volume 743: debated on Thursday 11 January 2024

The business for the week commencing 15 January will include:

Monday 15 January—Committee of the whole House and remaining stages of the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill.

Tuesday 16 January—Committee of the whole House on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill (day one).

Wednesday 17 January—Committee of the whole House on the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill (day two).

Thursday 18 January—Debate on a motion on the loan charge, followed by a debate on a motion on HS2 compensation. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 19 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 22 January includes:

Monday 22 January—Second Reading of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, to staff, to Members and to those watching. It might be a new year, but I am afraid it is the same old story: a Government who have run out of road and ideas, and who are not fixing the problems we face but making them worse. Many on the Leader of the House’s own side have reached the same conclusion. Yet another MP has resigned having lost trust, another has admitted that over their 13 years things have got worse, and a former Immigration Minister is taking to the airwaves to say that their Rwanda plan will not work—and it is only the first week back.

But some things have changed. The Prime Minister seems to have had a dramatic reversal in strategy. Despite just months ago rather laughably saying that he was the change candidate, his latest reset confirmed what we all know: he is now just offering more of the same—more of the same low growth, more of the same high taxes, more of the same backlogs and broken public services, and more of the same historically low living standards. Only this hapless Prime Minister would set himself targets that were hard to miss and then miss them.

We had further confirmation today, with new figures from the BBC showing every NHS target missed, and not just this past year, when the Government want to blame the strikes, or since the pandemic, which might be a little understandable—no: key NHS targets have been missed in each and every one of the past seven years. That is the second half of their time in office, after all their decisions and policies took effect. That is the record of this Government. Let us have that debate in this election year about the choice the voters will face: more of the same failure from the Conservatives, or change and hope with Labour.

Turning to the sub-postmaster scandal, we welcome the Government’s announcement of emergency legislation to quickly pardon those wrongfully convicted, and we stand ready to work with them. What has now come to wider public attention is the travesty, injustice and two decades of struggle they faced. Will the Leader of the House give us more details today and assure us that as the spotlight inevitably moves on, the Government will not take their foot off the gas in getting urgent justice, redress and accountability?

The issue goes wider. It follows a pattern similar to other injustices in which the state or corporate cover-up has wronged ordinary people, such as Windrush, infected blood, building safety and Grenfell, Hillsborough and more. All those cases, transpiring over decades, came to public awareness after the notable efforts of Back Benchers and dogged journalists working with the victims. Today’s Government should be learning wider lessons.

Recourse and redress proves every time to be incredibly difficult, lengthy and costly, fighting against powerful organisations that employ smoke and mirrors, expensive lawyers and enjoy the protection of the establishment, leaving victims facing years and years of frustrating battle. No amount of money can compensate for a life ruined. How are the Government collectively reviewing these recent scandals to make it easier for group action against vested interests?

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Government also expedite compensation for the Windrush scheme and victims of infected blood, who are still being frustrated; pay out for the remediation of building safety where innocent leaseholders are still left in limbo; and bring in a legal duty of candour, as demanded by the Hillsborough families. Is justice delayed not justice denied?

Another big learning is for accountability. Time and again, we see those responsible rewarded for failure and not held accountable for their failings, with more Government contracts, bonuses, gongs and peerages and the cost picked up by the taxpayer. I have asked the Leader of the House this before, but will she make it easier for Parliament to strip people of honours and peerages when they are found responsible for serious failings? Will she also condemn the practice, as we saw over the new year, of honours being awarded for failure?

Will the Leader of the House bring forward proposals to go after those responsible to pay financially and face the consequences? Will she put an end to the revolving door of awarding Government contracts? In the case of Fujitsu, the contracts are apparently worth several billion pounds. Is it any wonder that trust in politics has been so eroded when people do not see any accountability and when ordinary people pick up the bill while those responsible get off scot-free?

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to all colleagues. This week, I was delighted to welcome holocaust survivor Mala Tribich to the Commons, where she viewed the exhibition in Portcullis House. I encourage all Members to see it.

I am sure that I speak for the whole House in saying that our thoughts remain with the hostages still kept captive in Gaza—next week sees us pass the 100th day since they were taken—just as our thoughts remain with all the innocent people caught up in those events.

May I also give a shout out to the Royal Navy’s rowing team, HMS Oardacious, who are rowing across the Atlantic for mental health support? With just 500 nautical miles to go, they may land before next week’s business questions, and they are currently 100 miles ahead of the next team.

I turn to the substantive issue that the hon. Lady raised: the Post Office scandal. She will know about the existing legislation announced on 29 November, but it is to be welcomed that we are now taking unprecedented steps to quash convictions. That work is well under way, and we want to bring it to the House swiftly. The House will be aware of the risks outlined by the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), but I think we will find them necessary.

While the inquiry will look at some of the issues raised in this place, the hon. Lady is right that we should reflect now on what we could learn, and in particular what we should conclude about the powers given to arm’s length bodies of the state and what operational independence should mean for those organisations. Subsequent Conservative Administrations have been right in gripping and trying to resolve some difficult and long-running issues, from Windrush to the apology given by the noble Lord Cameron to the Hillsborough families, the apology given by the current Prime Minister to former members of our armed forces who had been shamed and driven out of service for being gay, and the 2017 infected blood inquiry and the later compensation study, which will make some amends for the decades of injustice and suffering that those people have endured. I am optimistic that we will reach some justice for those affected this year; I know that the Paymaster General is working hard to do that.

We were right to have a full public inquiry into the Horizon Post Office scandal, and we have rightly heard much about that this week, including in statements and urgent questions. I pay tribute to all right hon. and hon. Members and to the noble Lord Arbuthnot for the work they have done on this issue. I also pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton. In 2021, as a Back Bencher, he was fighting hard for sub-postmasters, and he has diligently pursued this issue in his ministerial role. That is his record on this issue and on much else, too. I remind the House that when he was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking, he helped people whose businesses had been deliberately and cynically destroyed by their lenders, winning compensation from Lloyds, HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. He is a very good man, and I know that he will bring forward legislation on this issue quickly.

The hon. Lady mentioned NHS performance data. Monthly performance data shows that in November overall waiting lists fell by more than 95,000 from October, down to 7.6 million. There were also 60,000 fewer patients waiting for care in November than in the previous month, and 112,000 fewer than in September. We have some difficult issues to deal with post pandemic, but the Prime Minister’s plan is working, and the new Secretary of State for Health is bringing forward further measures. As the hon. Lady will know, we have stood up an enormous number of new services and new healthcare professionals as well as immense numbers of new diagnostic centres, and we are vastly increasing the number of operations that can take place.

I do not wish to take any lectures from the hon. Lady on performance in the NHS. I point her to what Labour is doing in Wales, where I think the current situation in terms of waiting lists is four times worse than in England. Nor will I take any lessons on tax from a party that is clobbering British citizens where it is in power. It is doubling rates in Wales, and its London Mayor is clobbering hard-working people and charities with the ultra low emission zone. He has just capitulated to the militant trade unions on transport but does not know where to find the money to do that. Labour is soft on crime; the Met’s £70 million black hole in its budget demonstrates that. Time and again, where Labour is in power, it shows that it is not on the side of the British people.

My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the holocaust exhibition, and you, Mr Speaker, will lead the holocaust service in a few days’ time. Recently, I met holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who said that the proposed memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens was too small for its purpose and too large for the park.

The hybrid Committee will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday next week. Will my right hon. Friend consider talking to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to see whether they could put up scaffolding on a temporary basis to show the amount of space taken by the box of the so-called learning centre, and perhaps some plywood boards to illustrate the 23 fins that are supposed to be there? Then, we could go round the outside of the park to see whether it is visible, and see from inside how much damage it does to that well-loved park.

I know that my hon. Friend continues to press on this particular project. He will know that I am limited in what I can do to assist him, but I will write to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to make sure that he has heard, again, what my hon. Friend has said.

Bliadhna mhath ùr—happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to everyone in this place and watching.

Some positive news to start our first business questions of 2024: recent data from the Office for National Statistics and the Scottish Parliament Information Centre—the Commons Library equivalent—shows that Scotland’s gender pay gap is at a record low, and almost half that of the UK as a whole. Women’s weekly full-time pay has risen more than 10% in the last year. Any gap is, of course, too high, but I am sure that the Leader of the House would like to acknowledge the Scottish Government’s gender pay gap action plan, the first in the UK, which undoubtedly has helped to achieve those welcome results.

The Leader of the House’s Government could take several steps to help end the gender pay gap and advance equality right across these isles. After repeatedly shelving the employment Bill, they could finally act to make workplaces fairer, particularly in the current cost of living crisis, which we know impacts women more. They could legislate for mandatory gender and ethnicity pay gap reporting. They could finally deliver compensation for WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality —who have waited far too long to receive justice. More broadly, they could tackle the gender pension gap, as yearly incomes among pensioners are on average more than £7,000 lower for women.

While the Leader of the House considers her response to those suggestions, could she also respond to reports in the media that her Government blocked a minority ethnic woman from joining the board of Channel 4 without offering a reason? I am curious to hear what action she took in response to the recent comments by the Home Secretary, and whether she will condemn them now. They do nothing to dispel perceptions that a culture of misogyny in the UK Government is hampering progress on these issues. As she is a former Minister for Women and Equalities, I am sure that these matters are close to her heart, so will she support a debate on them, where perhaps some solutions might finally be agreed?

I also wish the hon. Lady a very happy new year. I do welcome the good news on the gender pay gap in Scotland. It is nice to see the SNP championing some good progress in Scotland and giving credit where it is due.

With regard to the UK Government’s record, we are making good progress: since 2010 we have an additional 2 million women in work. As the author of the women in work road map, which looks at every aspect of a woman’s life and tries to address the reasons why she is financially disadvantaged right through her life, from when she leaves school, through raising a family to the pensions gap, I know that this Government are committed to delivering on those disparities.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of Channel 4. I do not know the answer to that today, but I shall certainly ensure that the relevant Department has heard what she said.

The hon. Lady will know what the Home Secretary has said about the other matter she raised. I hope she also knows that the Home Secretary is a very decent fellow who loves his wife greatly. They have been through a lot in recent years as a couple and the hon. Lady will also know that.

I will conclude by adding some further good news about Scotland, which I hope the hon. Lady will welcome. I am delighted that part of the Stone of Destiny has been recovered from SNP headquarters. I am sure that is a great relief to all Members. It is easy to lose things, I know, like a couple of billion quid from your budget, but I am sorry to hear that the SNP has taken as much care of it as it has taken as the steward of Scotland’s public services. Happily, the Tupperware container it was stored in has protected it during its stay and the police raids on that premises. I join my Scottish colleagues in encouraging the SNP to find a more suitable home for it.

Traditional craft skills provide jobs and sustain businesses. They also emphasise our shared history: everything from wheelwrights to weavers, and from corsetry to carpentry. It was therefore very good news that, after a long campaign by the all-party parliamentary group for craft, which I chair, the Government announced that our country will now join the UNESCO convention for the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage. Will the Leader of the House bring a statement to the House saying when we will join, which will allow colleagues across the Chamber to question what further steps the Government might take to promote the expertise and experience that epitomises the best of Britain?

I thank my right hon. Friend both for his question and for the diligent work he and his colleagues have done in raising the profile and shining a spotlight on the incredible heritage of crafts and skills that we ought to celebrate retaining and to educate others about. I shall certainly write to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Given that my right hon. Friend has just missed departmental questions today, I will ask her to inform him about the timetable.

Mr Speaker, I wish you and Members across the House a very happy new year.

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement and for announcing the Backbench Business for next Thursday. I give her advance notice that we have a heavily subscribed application for a debate on Holocaust Memorial Day on Thursday 25 January, if we are allocated the time. Holocaust Memorial Day itself is on 27 January.

The Backbench Business Committee would very much welcome applications for debate slots in Westminster Hall. We can secure for Members debate slots on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons. While we have a glut of applications for the Chamber, we very much welcome applications for Westminster Hall debates to be submitted as soon as possible. I am also glad to report that application forms for Backbench Business debates can now be attained from the Vote Office, so Members can now just pick up a form, fill it in and submit it.

On a local issue for my constituency, the Tyne bridge between Gateshead and Newcastle has been earmarked for funding from the Department for Transport to give it a much-needed repair job and upgrade. I am afraid, though, that the money has been promised but has not been forthcoming, and the work very much needs to start as soon as possible. Indeed, if we do not get the work done, it will not be sound, solid and pristine for its anniversary in four years’ time. Will the Leader of the House check what is happening with the Department for Transport and see whether the funds can be released so that we can get on with the work?

I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his very helpful advert for future Backbench Business debates. In particular, it is good to hear that the Holocaust Memorial Day debate will be very well attended. It obviously has particular poignancy this year. I congratulate him on his innovation with the Vote Office. That is indeed welcome progress.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned a very important constituency matter. As well as celebrating a landmark anniversary, the bridge is a vital thoroughfare for his constituents. Given that the next session of Transport questions will not be until February, I shall write to the Secretary of State on his behalf.

As a Lancashire MP, Mr Speaker, you will be aware that salmon stocks run on a knife edge in our rivers. [Laughter.] I know that there are many famous salmon rivers near your home, Mr Speaker. May I ask the Leader of the House if we can have an urgent debate on the decline in this iconic species in England? Part of that debate will have to cover the impact that cormorant predation is having on salmon smolts.

Before I sit down, I must draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I am a former, very undistinguished, chair of the Angling Trust.

I know that this is a matter of concern for many Members around the country. In my own county a number of rivers are suffering particularly as a result of the issues raised by my hon. Friend. Given that the next relevant questions session will not be until February, I will write to the Secretary of State to make him aware of those issues.

May I wish you and your staff a happy new year, Mr Speaker?

As my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House pointed out, the handling of the Post Office scandal and the delayed justice involved will be familiar to many people, including my constituents, who have been caught up in similar outrageous scandals from Grenfell to Windrush to contaminated blood. In each case Ministers tell them that there is nothing they can do, until they are forced into action by public shame. Will the Leader of the House please allow Government time in which we can make progress for the victims of those scandals?

I know that many Members have constituents who are still waiting for compensation or the resolution of issues on a number of fronts. I shall not repeat what I said in response to the shadow Leader of the House, but I will say that I shall ask the Cabinet Office what more the head of the civil service can do to ensure that lessons are learnt from the last few weeks in particular. I know that the Cabinet Office evaluates inquiries to try to improve the quality of subsequent work. That has certainly happened in connection with big public inquiries, when it has looked into what constitutes good practice in respect of everything from looking after witnesses to ensuring that those inquiries take place speedily. However, I will ensure that the relevant people in the Cabinet Office have heard the hon. Lady’s concerns, which I am sure are echoed by many other Members on both sides of the House.

On Friday 23 February my private Member’s Bill, the Hereditary Titles (Female Succession) Bill, is due to be debated, but sadly it is No. 5 on the Order Paper, and I fear that we may not have much time in which to debate it. I wonder whether the Leader of the House could allocate Government time for a debate on the constitutional sexism which means that an eighth of the seats in the other place are reserved for men. Through such a debate we might be able to seek Government support, and also demonstrate the strength of feeling on both sides of the House that this constitutional sexism needs to end.

My hon. Friend will have heard that expression of support for her Bill from Members in all parts of the House. I congratulate her on her diligence: I know that she has been working with the Cabinet Office for several years to ensure that any impediment to her Bill’s progress is dealt with. It is a very narrow Bill, which does not deal with any other issues such as inheritance.

I will certainly ensure that the relevant Minister at the Cabinet Office is aware that the Bill is on the Order Paper. I know that my hon. Friend is having discussions with many Ministers about it, and if I can facilitate any of those conversations, I stand ready to do so.

More than 10 hospitality venues close each day in the UK. Before Christmas, I visited the wonderful Abbey deli in Bath to hear about the challenges that hospitality businesses face in my constituency. I was told that one solution might be a sliding scale of VAT, which could result in both more tax revenue for the Government and higher profits for small businesses. Can we have a statement from the relevant Minister on what the Government will do to support hospitality businesses in 2024?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. She will know that the Treasury, in particular, has been very concerned about this sector, to which it provided particular support through the pandemic years. Since then, it has continued to support the sector through rates relief and so forth. I fully appreciate that VAT thresholds are a particular problem for these types of businesses, and I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has heard what she says. The hon. Lady is a very experienced parliamentarian, and she will know what she can do as we approach the Budget to ensure that these issues are addressed.

My right hon. Friend has referred to arm’s length Government agencies, of which the Post Office is just one. I am sure that Members across the House will have experience of tracking down decision makers within these organisations to hold them to account on behalf of our constituents. Can we have a debate on the accountability of these agencies? It may emerge from that debate how we can make them more accountable.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that suggestion. I think it would be a very timely debate indeed. I have already expressed my views on the subject, and I know that, on Monday, the Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), spoke about how accountability is key to ensuring good oversight of arm’s length bodies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) knows how to apply for a debate, and I am sure it would be well attended.

My constituent, Mr Richard Troote, had to wait over 18 months to receive from His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs a national insurance refund worth more than £1,300 for the tax year 2021-22. HMRC still has not responded to his complaint, or indeed his request for a complaint, on the refund. Could the Leader of the House ask for a written statement on what Treasury Ministers will do to provide more support to HMRC civil servants to try to deal with these backlogs? In a cost of living crisis, none of our constituents can afford to wait 18 months for these refunds. It is not acceptable.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. Money owed by HMRC accrues interest, but that arrangement is not reciprocal. As Treasury questions will not be until later next month, I will write to the Treasury if he gives me details of the case. Hopefully we will be able to get this resolved swiftly for his constituent.

Can we have a debate on bus priority measures so that I can express my constituents’ strong opposition to the proposal by Barnet Council and the Mayor of London to introduce bus lanes on the A1000 in High Barnet and Whetstone? They will cause huge congestion, they will damage local businesses and they are not needed or wanted.

My right hon. Friend is right that any such proposal should really be developed with input from the local community, and something has gone wrong if the community is so galvanised against a scheme that is due to come to the area. The next Transport questions are not until 8 February, but I will make sure that the Secretary of State knows about her concerns. I am afraid that the Mayor of London is the decision maker, and I hope he will listen to her and her constituents.

When we ask written questions and when our offices require information from Government Departments, our constituents expect a comprehensive response. However, we are getting standardised responses from UK Visas and Immigration, in particular. We have desperate people who fear for their future, so will the Leader of the House talk to the Home Office about how we can have comprehensive responses so that we can know the timelines, the details and the reasons for the delays in processing cases?

I am sorry to hear that the hon. Lady and perhaps other colleagues are not getting the quality of replies that they need. She will know that we took some measures with the Home Office to try to improve its correspondence services to this House, including getting the permanent secretary to come in to see me. She will also know that Home Office surgeries are available for hon. Members, but I will certainly make sure that the permanent secretary has heard again what she has said. I will also make sure that my teams who work with the parliamentary clerks in those Departments have heard what she has said and will pass that back.

Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s questions, it was a real pleasure to welcome the former Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Sir Chris Tickell, now the Chief Royal Engineer. The Royal Engineers are a key part of community life in the Medway towns and their ranks make up 10% of the British armed forces. The Leader of the House knows from her own experience that the UK has some of the finest armed forces in the world, but there is a real question about recruitment and retention in the British armed forces. May we have an urgent statement from the Ministry of Defence setting out what concrete steps the Government are taking to address that? I declare an interest, in that I used to be a reservist in the British armed forces.

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question and for his previous service. Unfortunately, the date of the next Defence questions has yet to be finalised, so I will make sure that the Secretary of State has heard what he has said today and the fact that he has raised this issue.

The strong rationale for HS2 was always about the capacity on the west coast line, rather than speed. The Select Committee has now learned that when HS2 starts to run from London to Birmingham it will actually mean fewer seats on trains further north to Manchester, thus reducing the capacity. Given that the Government created this mess by cancelling HS2 to Manchester, may we have a statement or debate in Government time on how we increase capacity on the west coast main line, so that Manchester is properly served by rail services?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important matter. Given that Transport questions are not until 8 February, I will certainly make sure that the Secretary of State has heard what he has said today. I am sure that this will be about not just rail lines, but rolling stock being purchased and many other issues.

I am sure the whole House will be relieved to hear that the takeover of Southend United football club was finally settled over the festive period. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Conservative leader of Southend City Council, Councillor Tony Cox, on his exceptional efforts in getting that across the line and, of course, Justin Rees, the new owner? Will she also update this House on when the football governance Bill is going to be debated? Many Members want to contribute to that debate, to make sure that we have a more secure future for English football.

I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that we are delighted to hear that Southend United is alive and kicking. As a Portsmouth fan, I very much appreciate how much that will mean to the local community. I congratulate everyone on all that they have done to ensure that that happened, particularly Councillor Tony Cox, as I understand he played a major role. I believe that the football governance Bill has support in all parts of the House; we will bring it forward swiftly and further business will be announced in the usual way.

Across the House, I think we all welcome the Government’s action this week on the Horizon scandal, the biggest miscarriage of justice in the UK. Does the Leader of the House think it will take an ITV drama for the Government to act quickly on the infected blood scandal, which is of course the largest treatment disaster in the history of the NHS? As we already have the final recommendations on compensation from Sir Brian Langstaff, why can the Government not bring forward a statement next week setting out that compensation will start to be paid from next week?

I thank the right hon. Lady for raising this issue yet again. I am in regular contact with the Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), and I am confident that it will not take an ITV drama for us to resolve the issue. He is working through what the right hon. Lady will know are some very difficult issues. He has the final shift in this particular story, and I am confident he will deliver on it.

We were all shocked by the layer on layer of injustice that was levelled against those who suffered in the Post Office Horizon scandal. Terrible and shocking as that was, the right hon. Lady and I know that the infected blood inquiry is on another level. We want to ensure people get justice, whether they were infected directly or were affected in some way. We are determined to do that, and I know that the Paymaster General is going to deliver.

I have met with several families in my constituency whose children have education, health and care plans, yet they still experience difficulties finding special educational needs and disabilities support. I have taken up their cases with senior council officers, who tell me that SEND is the No. 1 financial challenge for the council. Can we have a debate on the changes made in the Children and Families Act 2014 and the effect they are having through increased demand for services in local authorities? In North Yorkshire alone, the council believes 1,000 cases last year were attributable to changes made by that Act.

My normal answer would be that my hon. Friend needs to apply for a debate and that I am sure it would be well attended, but that is not required because there is such a debate this afternoon. My hon. Friend is always first out of the blocks, and he has got the points he wishes to raise in Hansard before anyone else, I congratulate him on doing so.

The Leader of the House is always keen to talk about competent government, yet her Government pay £318 million every day in debt interest and national debt is £37,730 for every man, woman and child in the UK. The Government have burned £4.2 billion worth of personal protective equipment and have wasted £66,600 million on HS2, which is now just a rail link from London to Birmingham. In the spirit of her interest in competent government, will the Leader of the House make a statement on which of those achievements she feels most clearly illustrates the competence of her Government?

The hon. Lady is right that we have been through some very difficult challenges; responding to a global pandemic was one of them. Despite all those difficulties, we still manage to have people in England paying lower tax than people in Scotland and we have managed to have a balanced budget, as opposed to the Scottish National party, which is £2 million adrift over the next four years.

St Helier Hospital has been saved, thankfully. Accident and emergency and maternity services are now protected within the London Borough of Sutton, and a second state-of-the-art hospital is being built in our borough as well. Work is already under way to prepare the land and improvement works are happening at the hospital, but can we have a debate in Government time on the progress in delivering the Government’s new hospital programme and the benefits it has for my constituents in Carshalton and Wallington?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all he has done to secure the new facilities—I think he has two new healthcare facilities in his local area. He will know how to apply for a debate; I envisage that it would cover not just capital infrastructure, but the massive uplift in healthcare professionals, as it is no good just having bricks and mortar. He will know that we have smashed our manifesto target of recruiting 50,000 new nurses.

A ceasefire in Gaza is desperately needed—one that begins with humanitarian pauses and becomes sustained, so that the remaining hostages can be got out and, crucially, aid can be got in. Given that UN agencies are critical to getting aid into Gaza but have secured only half the $1.2 billion needed to implement their response plan and support the immediate humanitarian needs in Gaza and the west bank, can we have a debate in Government time on what more Britain can do to galvanise international efforts behind the UN’s flash appeal to support the Palestinians?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter and, in doing so, for providing an advert for that unmet need. He will know that, as well as stepping forward and providing aid to support people both in this particular humanitarian crisis and prior to October, the UK has played a considerable role in not just providing funding but getting others to pledge and deliver finance. I shall make sure that the Foreign Secretary has heard his concerns in that area. I will also write to the international development Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), asking him to contact the hon. Gentleman’s office to update him on what more is being done.

Can we have a debate on the UK Government’s support for Nigeria to defend freedom of religion or belief in light of the appalling atrocity that took place on Christmas eve in Plateau state? At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, a co-ordinated attack by Fulani militants saw 15 villages attacked and approximately 200 people killed, in one of the largest mass attacks in recent years. Christians appeared to be specifically targeted, as militants went from door to door seeking out church pastors to kill. A debate would enable us to join calls for justice, restoration and humanitarian support for the thousands who have been displaced.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that appalling atrocity. It is one of the largest mass attacks that we have seen in recent history and will have brought absolute terror to that community. She will know that the Foreign Office is doing considerable work through the “Strengthening Peace and Resilience in Nigeria” programme. The Department will have been very shocked and disappointed to see this take place. I shall make sure that both the Foreign Secretary and the international development Minister have heard what she has said.

The Leader of the House said that she would take no lessons on the NHS, yet in the past four years alone the number of patients waiting more than four hours in Barnsley A&E has risen by 400%. Why, under this Conservative Government, do my constituents have to wait so long for basic healthcare?

The hon. Lady will know that we are dealing with the unprecedented challenges arising from the pandemic. She will know that we have invested record amounts in the NHS. She will know also that there has been an unprecedented uplift in the number of healthcare professionals. She will know also from the figures out today that those waiting lists are coming down, and we will continue with that work. It has taken a huge amount of investment in diagnostic centres and in providing 2 million more operations to crack through that backlog. Although covid itself is over, we are still dealing with some of the issues that were caused by that pandemic, but we will get through it, and we will return to normal business in the NHS.

The ombudsman concluded that there was official maladministration in relation to those in the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign, who were not properly informed about changes to their state pensions. We have been waiting for its further report on whether this caused injustice to the victims. I understand that a provisional version of that report is now written, with a final vision therefore imminent. Given most people expect that there will have been an injustice in many cases and given the scale of redress that will be required where it is found, can the Leader of the House confirm that the Government are aware of these provisional findings and let us know when Ministers will bring forward details of a redress scheme for Parliament to debate and properly approve?

My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. This is a critical piece of work. I will make sure that both the relevant Minister and the ombudsman’s office have heard his concerns today, and I will ask the Minister to give an update on timing.

Schoolchildren in south-east Northumberland have always enjoyed the ability to choose which school they want to attend, but a change in the oversubscription criteria has meant that many kids, mainly in rural areas, are separated from the people they used to go to school with, and their friends and family. They also often have much longer journey times to get to a different school. Can we have a debate in Government time about student allocation in schools in south-east Northumberland, please?

I am sorry to hear about the situation in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It is really important that we have genuine school choice. That is part of the way that we can drive standards. Of course, we can only have that if there is good local planning on school places and people anticipate the need. I will certainly ensure that what he has said is heard by the Secretary of State for Education. The next Question Time is on 29 January, if he wishes to raise the matter directly, but it is an issue of local planning and decision making.

I am very much looking forward to welcoming the Leader of the House to Bracknell on Saturday. While there are many challenges out there, and sadly some negativity and vitriol on social media, will she reinforce her customary positive narrative by giving a shout-out for all that is good about east Berkshire—notably, our fantastic education and employment opportunities, our superb sense of community, and all those who are doing so much to help others?

I am very much looking forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency. We have been through a rough few years, but the people of this country and his constituency have been absolutely stoic. I know that his local area enjoys nearly full employment and high average wages. I think that all 40 schools in his area are rated good or outstanding, and his business community has attracted unprecedented foreign investment. I know that he is eager to do more for his constituents, but I look forward to learning more about what his community is delivering when I visit shortly.

I gently point out that it is quite important to ask the Leader of the House something that relates to business in the House, rather than for shout-outs, which are not quite appropriate for business questions.

I invite the Leader of the House, and in fact all hon. Members, to join me and Samaritans on Monday for a brew. Blue Monday may have been a term invented by the travel industry to encourage us to book holidays, but we have converted it to Brew Monday, when we can talk about the importance of talking to each other in an effort to prevent suicide. To back that up, can we have a debate in Government time on the national suicide prevention strategy, and look at what else we can do besides Brew Monday to prevent suicides?

On behalf of all colleagues, I thank the hon. Lady for all the work that she has done over a long period to raise awareness of the issue, and particularly of Brew Monday. We know that the week in the wake of Christmas is a difficult one. Credit card bills arrive and all sorts of things happen to add further stress to individuals. I thank her for raising awareness of Brew Monday and encouraging everyone to take part in it. She will know how to apply for a debate, but I hope that she will recognise that the Chancellor committed in the last Budget to provide an extra £10 million over the next few years to support the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector through the suicide prevention grant. We have that strategy, and I am sure that if she applied for a debate it would be well attended.

Last Friday, I visited residents affected by the floods in Leighton Buzzard. I have also had communication from the leader of Central Bedfordshire Council pointing out the great upset about damage to residential properties and highways in the local authority area. Although we were severely affected, we are not a local authority designated under the Government’s flood recovery framework, so could the Leader of the House give me some guidance on how we can get more investment from water companies, the Environment Agency and internal drainage boards to ensure that we protect properties and highways and prevent such an awful event from affecting people in the future?

May I first say how sorry I am that my hon. Friend’s constituents have been affected? He will know that, through the Government’s long-term policy statement published in 2020, there is a methodical plan to protect properties. We have protected about 600,000 homes from flooding over the past few years with an unprecedented investment, but clearly some areas are not eligible for particular schemes. Given that the next questions to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will not be until next month, and that this will be an imminent issue for his local colleagues, I will write to the Secretary of State and ask that someone from the Department contacts his local authority to discuss the issues they are having and see what support can be provided.

In the wake of the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, could a Minister from the Cabinet Office make a statement and announce an immediate investigation into all Fujitsu IT systems in use by the Government, and those that have been used historically, to establish whether they have bugs and glitches? We need to look particularly at the Child Maintenance Service, which I am aware used a Fujitsu system until at least 2021.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that. I refer him to Hansard, where he can see what has been said already in the statement and urgent question earlier this week. I shall certainly ensure that both the Post Office Minister and the Cabinet Office Minister with oversight of procurement have heard what he has said today.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Watermouth Valley camping park in my constituency, which has been named the best campsite in the UK in the camping and glamping awards? May we have a debate in Government time about how we could better support tourism and hospitality businesses by reducing VAT, enabling more businesses to enjoy similar successes?

First, I congratulate Watermouth Valley camping park on its achievements. My hon. Friend will know that, as we approach the Budget, the Chancellor’s door will be open for lobbying—I know that other hon. Members have mentioned VAT rates, in particular. It is surely one of the upsides of our new-found freedoms that we are able to vary rates on products and services. I know that this sector, as well as the hospitality sector, will be keen to ask for things in the forthcoming Budget. I will certainly ensure that the Chancellor has heard what she has said.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the upcoming business. Residents of the town of Sherburn in Elmet, in my constituency, have faced a wave of awful crime in recent months, with cars stolen from driveways and homes burgled. I am sure that she can appreciate just how stressful and traumatic that is for residents, who feel unsafe in their own homes. That is compounded by the fact that Sherburn, like many rural towns in Britain, does not have its own manned police station. May we therefore have an urgent debate on how we can support residents and local police forces, such as mine, to tackle the growing and pernicious issue of rural crime?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that. We have a good record and have halved crime since 2010 with roughly the same resource—once online fraud is stripped out—but some areas and issues remain stubborn. I very much appreciate that it is particularly challenging in rural areas. I will certainly ensure that the Home Office has heard his concerns. I know that, in other areas, there is good practice where even if there is not a physical police station, there is a physical police presence, and a lot of good practice is being shared across police areas, but I will ensure that the Home Office has heard what he has said.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the chaos that would have ensued had the RMT gone ahead with its strike on the underground over this past week. The strike was called after all the other trade unions had accepted the 5% pay offer, and the RMT and other unions were told there was no more money left. However, at the very last moment—literally hours before the strike was due to start—the Mayor of London magically found £30 million. He proposes to increase the council tax share in London by 8.7%. He refuses to give the Metropolitan police the funding it needs, and indeed he can find money for his vanity schemes, yet he still carries on with the ULEZ expansion, which is hated across London. May we have a debate in Government time on the chaos that seems to ensue in City Hall, and on its finances?

Londoners are enjoying the worst of all possible worlds. On the Mayor’s own assessment, he has had spectacular failure with regard to strikes—under his tenure, Londoners have had to endure 139 transport strikes, I think. My hon. Friend is right that this is not just capitulating to unions, while not protecting basic public services; it is rewarding people for taking strike action. I am not sure whether the Mayor has found £30 million, as there is some scepticism and questions are being asked about his budget, but he certainly has not found the £70 million shortfall in the Met’s budget to allow it to continue its reforms and good work. It is a sorry state, and I hope it will not be too long before they will have someone in City Hall who will look after their interests, have the backbone to stand up to militant trade unions and realise that clobbering hard-working people and charities through ULEZ is not a good idea.

In November the Carrbridge Centre, which does important work with children and other residents in Woodchurch in my constituency, had its Barclays bank account closed without warning, despite the fact that there was a very large amount of money in the account. It is one of many charities across the country that have experienced the same thing. The closure placed the centre in an extremely difficult situation, as it could not pay in or out of the account. It had an impact on the running of the centre and the payment of staff wages and was especially problematic during the run-up to Christmas with the special activities that the centre had planned. I am pleased to say that those events eventually did go ahead thanks to the determination and commitment of the staff and trustees, but none the less it is wrong that they have had to go through this. May we have a debate in Government time on the impact of such arbitrary decisions by banks such as Barclays on charities and on possible action that can be taken against banks acting in that way?

I am very sorry to hear about what has happened in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and I applaud the staff and trustees who continued undeterred to provide those services and support to their local communities. In such cases, I always hope that the public affairs departments of businesses—in this case Barclays—are listening in to business questions. If Barclays has not already made redress for this situation, I hope that it will get in touch with her office. I will ensure that the Minister has heard what has been said. The difficulty in these situations is not just that something happens and an account is frozen or closed, but that people are incapable of finding out why that has happened or trying to get it resolved. It is a shoddy situation and I hope Barclays will phone her this afternoon.

In August last year, Partington post office in my constituency closed, following the retirement of its long-serving postmistress. Partington is an isolated community, with low levels of car ownership and appalling public transport, and of course its town centre banks have long since closed. It is several miles to the nearest main post office—or, for those without transport, a multiple-hour round trip. May we have a debate in Government time on the support available to post offices in isolated communities that do not qualify for the rural support services grant, but where it is incredibly challenging for those communities to reach other post offices, to ensure that those services remain in communities such as Partington?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. He will know that it is covered by work undertaken by the Post Office Minister and by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which runs a successful scheme looking at how services might be retained in the local community, even if the bricks and mortar of the post office have been stood down. The next questions to the Department, which I think runs that best practice scheme, are on 22 January, so the hon. Gentleman might wish to raise the matter then, but I will also ensure that both relevant Ministers have heard his concerns and ask their offices to get in touch with him.

I thank the Leader of the House for another opportunity to ask a question on the state of freedom of religion or belief. In the persecution of Christians in Ukraine under Russian control, one pastor, Dimitry, suffered under Russian interrogation because of his evangelical faith. Russian soldiers have removed crosses, stopped services, fingerprinted everyone in the congregation and taken possession of church buildings. The Russian actions against Christians in Ukraine must stop.

At the same time, a new religious law has been introduced in Belarus. In 2023, Belarusian authorities bulldozed and liquidated the New Life Pentecostal church, detained and fined dozens of Christian religious leaders for perceived political activities, and blacklisted human rights organisations working on religious freedom issues. Last week, on 3 January, Belarus signed into law provisions imposing more restrictions on religious communities. Will the Leader of the House join me in denouncing that Belarusian law, and will she ask the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister to take up the matter with the Belarusian authorities?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for again shining a spotlight, this week on two appalling situations: one in Belarus and the other in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory. In the Orthodox calendar, Christmas was just last Saturday, so the events will have been particularly concerning for many in those communities. I will certainly ensure that the Foreign Office has heard his concerns. He knows that it will take those matters seriously, and I thank him again for bringing them to the attention of the House.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the increasing incidence of flooding events, as we heard earlier from the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), which are having a huge impact not only on the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in so many of our constituencies across the country, but on businesses, on infrastructure and on our farmers’ winter crops, which could have a huge impact on food prices as we get into the summer and autumn. I urge her to grant a debate on flooding in Government time.

That is a concern for many colleagues across the House. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have invested unprecedented amounts in flood defences—the last tranche was £5.2 billion—and have protected many communities, including 600,000 properties. He will know that some flooding is planned—land is set aside where we expect floods to take place—but he is right that we are facing more extreme weather events. I will certainly ensure that the Secretary of State has heard his concerns, which he may also wish to raise directly with the Secretary of State on 1 February.